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February 25th, 2011 - The Old Soft Shoe

Last week after the snow had all but disappeared from around here, I was actually thinking about taking the sandbags out of the back of the truck, putting the ice scraper under the seat, and pumping up my bike tires. So of course Mother Nature had to graphically remind me that it is still February in Wisconsin.

Lucky for me I like to snowshoe. I recently traded an old bike for two pair of vintage snowshoes, and sometimes in the winter I get paid to snowshoe around dormant nurseries looking for Gypsy Moth eggmasses. Last Tuesday was such a day.
It was that sorta wet / sorta dry type of snow that likes to hang in the trees until late in the afternoon, aided by a nightly pre-application of freezing drizzle, or "frizzle" as we say in the trades.

So it was really cool peering down the endless rows of snow-covered willow, ash, and other nursery trees as I softly shuffled by, while scoping the big trees around the outside fencelines.
Thinking about it now, I probably should have taken a short video of it, but I don't seem to think in video, at least for the majority of the time.
That reminds me though, I do have a couple vids I shot last Christmas tree inspecting season that I should pull out and share. (Scrawls note on junk mail envelope 
hastily pulled from the recycling bin and already over-crowded with illegible notes). 
Anyway, it was an awesome little walk in the woods, I didn't find any signs of Gypsy Moth, which is good, but also kind of unsatisfying for me at the same time because I didn't find any. It's a no-win type of situation.
One thing I did find though was a heck of a lot of sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) damage on the pines.
What these birds do is hammer away at the trees making strange, almost Asian-looking character patterns, usually formed from repeated horizontal drill lines. They create sapsucker "wells" and let the sap run for awhile, then come back to lap the sap (they really don't suck it, it's a misnomer, they should be called "sap-lappers").
They also take a few insects that are attracted to the flowing sugary carbo treat, for a little protein don't cha know. Kinda like little sausages to go with your syrup and 'cakes.
Many of the well-patterns in the trees are just horizontal lines, but some of the heavily pecked and presumably extra tasty trees had very developed intricate character alphabets written on them in sapsucker braille.
The other thing that's cool about this process is that tree itself starts putting up a defense to the drilling, by filling the holes from the inside with little "sap-plugs" to stop the drip and seal itself off from the elements.
You can see some of these plugs in a few of the holes in the photos, they look like little eggs. (Some may actually be eggs, insect eggs, but the insects usually don't lay them this close to the outside of the tree until the weather warms and they figure they will have a better chance for survival in more moderate temperatures).

Another novel thing I came across was this saprophyte growing on a completely downed and debarked tree. It's some type of fungus - that I should probably know the name of but don't...But hey, I can accept that, I can barely remember my own name, that's why they give me a badge on a string to wear around my neck. The interesting thing (to me anyway) is that this particular fungus looked as though it had been growing in and around some bore-holes in the trunk, probably caused by a bark-boring beetle or other insect. I haven't often seen this type of "behavior."
Well, one organism's trash is another organism's treasure...

Other recent notable snowshoeing outings brought back some interesting pictures of the prairie at Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
This week, right on cue, Old Man Winter (Oh yeah, it's still officially winter) brought on another storm, and poof! A nice white blanket for snowshoeing after my afternoon class at Retzer on Wednesday, after all the snow had virtually disappeared during the weekend.
Here's a quick little hacked together panorama (QLHTP) from the top of the prairie "hill" at Retzer looking mostly west towards Sussex, WI, and south towards the fens down in the little valley:

Sorry about the stitching and the dark corners, I blame it on "my cheesy little camera." (MCLC) Click on the image to view it larger and see if you can find the sun and moon.
They are both there in the same picture (It's a 360 degree pano).
I suppose if you were a really good astronomer, you would know where to look for them at 43.013246 N, -88.29939 W, facing SW on Wednesday, ‎February ‎23, ‎2011, ‏‎5:36:04 PM.
I for one, am not.
Hey! Make the most of winter - there are only a few weeks of it left...!

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